The Turner at the Met is a bear of a show—165 items, mostly oils and watercolors, with a few prints—and the other patrons on the day of my perambulation staggered from the final chamber into the gift shop’s welcoming arms as if after a tussle in a cave. Turner cannot be dismissed, but he cannot quite be embraced, either. Ian Warrell says in his catalog essay “J.M.W. Turner and the Pursuit of Fame”:
Few other British artists before, or since, have generated such wildly diverse responses to their work during their lifetimes or have continued to provoke such fervent debate.
His contemporaries did agree that he was personally unprepossessing; one associate admitted that “at first sight Turner gave one the notion of a mean-looking little man,” while another remarked that “this man must be loved for his works; for his person is not striking.” John Constable said after encountering the man, a year older than he and much quicker to achieve success, “I always expected to find him what I did—he is uncouth but has a wonderfull range of mind.” Turner failed to look like a great painter, but no one, certainly no other British landscape artist, aspired to greatness more nakedly, with so uninterrupted a productivity and uninhibited an adventurousness.
In the century and half since Turner’s death in 1851, evolving taste has reversed the debate over his merits: it is the later, nearly abstract paintings that win our hearts, though contemporary criticism waxed sardonic in their dispraise, and the earlier works that won him wealth and fame—mythologically tinged landscapes and scenic renderings of ships, castles, Alps, and English country homes—repel us with their brownish pomp. They seem so melodramatic, so fusty, so hard-working, so grande galerie, while some of the canvases (Europa and the Bull; Norham Castle, Sunrise, both circa 1845), to which his brush condescended with a few cryptic dabbles and golden smears, impress us as thrillingly minimal and airy. When these unsold, never-exhibited portions of the immense Turner Bequest left to the Tate were first put on public view in 1906, one critic exclaimed, “We have never seen Turner before!” Another wrote analytically, “Turner in his latest development, more than any artist who had gone before him, painted not so much the objects he saw as the light which played around them.”
Yet the predilections that make Turner special, and even peculiar, were there from the start. He was the artistically precocious son of a Covent Garden barber and a mother who, after leading her husband “a sad life,” was committed to Bethlehem Hospital for the insane, popularly called “Bedlam,” in 1800, when she was sixty-one and her only son, known in the household as William, was twenty-five.1 Since the age of twelve he had been turning out architectural drawings and hand-coloring prints for a nearby engraver; some of his early drawings were sold in his father’s shop, “ticketed at prices varying from one shilling to three.” At the age of fourteen, he…
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